Cruel Country (dBPM Records)
Many years ago, John F Kennedy – the Irish-Catholic Australian singer, not the Irish-Catholic American president – told us with a dose of twang that “it’s a big, big country but it’s a small, small world”. Sometime after, Willie Nelson asked, with his usual understated manner, “cruel, cruel world, must I go on?”
Somewhere in between, lyrically, emotionally, and musically, Wilco emerge from the fog of war on sense that has raged since 2016 (though lit well before then) to ponder a world that is relentless and probably unforgiving, a country that is cruel and possibly forgivable, and ask, what do we do with this? And then find ways to answer it.
Cruel Country is being called Wilco’s country album, and that’s sort of true: there are moments of loping rhythms that suggest horse rather than horsepower, guitar notes are bent rather than broken, a song like Many Worlds has the airy fragility of a tender Willie Nelson song, The Plains evokes a campfire night on the westward trail, and one song is called Country Song Upside –down.
But it would be more accurate to call it an American album, fleshing out in sound and sensibility the kind of musical themes Jeff Tweedy and friends have been working on from A.M. and Being There, that still flavoured more esoteric albums like Star Wars, and which shadow the relatively sparse Ode To Joy.
So you can feel the border country drawl (of the rhythm) crossed with the New York enquiry (of the guitar line) in Mystery Binds; there’s a summer heat somnolence in Tired Of Taking It Out On You decorated with delicate cooler clime filigrees; and the winding explorations of Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull cross back and forth between Chicago and somewhere further south.
Then in different corners are the literal clip clop of the title track, a touch of New Orleans brass in Darkness Is Cheap, the rehearsal space languor of the longform Many Worlds, and the ravaged visage of The Empty Condor, with its echoes of the last days of Big Star, all of which contribute to a broad spectrum approach that might genuinely be called Americana.
It’s a very Wilco album in other words, made even more so by the fact that this is the most “band” record they’ve made in a good while – and the fact that it has 21 songs. It sounds more filled out, with more bodies on each track finding their place, and it feels looser, like songs came together as an ensemble not a piece of direction from Tweedy. And most of all, most Wilco of all, it has an understanding that plays as solace instead of absolution.
Tweedy does not obscure the petty insults and damaging insecurities of parts of American culture, the elevation of performance piety over genuine care (“All you have to do is sing in the choir/Kill yourself every once in a while/And sing in the choir, with me”), and its capacity for destruction, any more than he avoids the self-questioning that’s always defined him. He didn’t call this Sweet Country after all.
But as with Hiss Golden Messenger’s equally America-writ-wide Quietly Blowing It, last year, Cruel Country has the tenor, the warmth, of someone looking for routes into rather than around those who might resist but have the openness to listen. It’s a damaged country, but maybe not all are beyond reach or beyond forgiving.